Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is a most remarkable man.
Consider these attributes: a Muslim theologian who promotes democracy, an Iraqi Shia leader who supports national reconciliation, an international Shia luminary who believes Sunnis and Shias and Christians -- and human beings in general -- have reasons to cooperate and accommodate. In a just world, he would win a Nobel Peace Prize.
British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham said of Sistani in 2004: "The pro-democracy moderate Muslim cleric doesn't have to be found. That's Sistani. Fortunately, he is the most influential religious leader in Iraq."
Sistani's influence extends beyond Iraq, into Shia communities throughout the world, including Iran and Lebanon.
However, these inspiring attributes are the very reason the so-called "Soldiers of Heaven" militia targeted Grand Ayatollah Sistani for either kidnapping or assassination this past weekend.
News reports describe the Soldiers of Heaven as a "messianic Shia cult" intent on murdering Shia pilgrims visiting shrines in the Iraqi city of Najaf. The Shia pilgrims were commemorating Ashoura, the murder of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, after the Battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. That murder fixed the schism between the Sunni and the Shia. Najaf (which isn't far from the modern city of Karbala) is also Sistani's home.
I'll get to the Battle of Najaf 2007 in a moment, but first consider who benefits from the mass murder of Shia pilgrims and senior Shia clerisy who support reconciliation and national unity. Here's the answer: the Islamo-fascist killers who fear the emergence of a democratic alternative to tyranny and terror in the Middle East.
Sistani offers a modernizing Shia alternative to Iran's radical leaders. That's why targeting Sistani immediately suggests a touch or two of Iranian involvement, at least in terms of funds and operational advice.
Radical Shia groups in Iraq benefit from such a horror. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has launched a new series of raids on Moktada Sadr's Shiite Mahdi Militia. That's put the Sadrists in a bind. Sadrist propagandists assert that the Shia radical militias protect Shias the government cannot defend. Savagery in Najaf plays into the propagandists' hands -- even though the nominal leader of the Soldiers of Heaven also called himself "the mahdi."
Saddamist and Sunni rejectionists also benefit from murder and chaos. We know from documents captured in February 2004 that al-Qaida saw a Sunni-Shia war as its only path to victory in Iraq. Saddam's supporters gambled that they could murder their way back into power by killing Iraqis and inciting ethnic as well as religious conflict. Saddam's holdouts have been trying to stage an "Iraqi Tet" since 2004, achieving a media-driven psychological victory that will force the United States to abandon Iraqi democrats.
Do these disparate, philosophically antithetical rejectionist groups cooperate? Coalition intelligence analysts suspect they do -- at least at the wink-and-nod level. Iraqi democrats and clerics like Sistani are their common enemy -- a modernity and moderation that seeds their defeat. Shia clerics in Najaf told The New York Times that at least one Soldier of Heaven Shiite leader allied himself with Saddam Hussein in 1993. That's one open-source indication of cross-fertilization.
So last weekend the Soldiers of Heaven -- allegedly a Shia faction, but certainly a rejectionist organization -- gathered at least 600 fighters (and possibly more) outside of Najaf on a farm owned by a supporter of Saddam's regime.
But the Iraqi government struck first.
Press reports have emphasized the Iraqi government's and Iraqi Army's inadequacies. An Iraqi Army battalion dispatched to the Soldiers of Heaven camp encountered fierce resistance. It pulled back and requested air strikes and U.S. military support. The firefight raged for 24 hours. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense reported 263 militants killed and over 300 captured.
Striking first indicates improved intelligence. Iraqi forces striking first demonstrates improved Iraqi military capabilities. U.S. and coalition air and ground "back up" is an operational version of "strategic overwatch," which was the goal coalition forces set for themselves in 2004.
Mass murder in Najaf was thwarted. The rejectionist forces were destroyed. American defeatists and Middle Eastern fascists should take note.
In a column dated Nov. 28, "Iraq's War of Perception: 'Who Is Jamil Hussein?'", I wrote that I doubted an Associated Press source for a story originating in Baghdad existed. The AP answered the questions raised on the two Websites my column quoted. I congratulate the AP's Baghdad bureau for standing by its sources and am delighted to issue a correction.